Alhaji Bai Konte: Alla L‘aa Ke
When I finished Polyrhythm, Part 2, I wasn’t intending to do a part 3. But, since then, a thought has nagged at me. I left out what may be the most remarkable example of polyrhythmic music in all of Africa. And that is the music of the kora.
The kora is often described as an African harp because of its sound, but it is played differently. The player uses the thumb and forefinger of each hand to pluck the strings, while the other fingers adjust the tuning by moving iron rings up or down the strings. There are traditionally twenty-one strings, with ten played by the right hand and eleven played by the left. What makes kora music a remarkable example of polyrhythmic music is the fact that each hand plays a different rhythm. So, unlike the Yoruba music we heard in part 1, in kora music, the overlapping rhythms are played by only one musician, with no overdubs.
The example heard here is by Alhaji Bai Konte, a griot of the Mandinka tribe. A griot is a traditional praise singer, analogous to the minstrel in medieval Europe. The role of the griot is passed on from father to son. Alhaji Bai Konte died in 1983, but his son Dembe Konte follows in his footsteps to this day.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Beastie Boys - Shake Your Rump [purchase]
I couldn't begin to tell you how many different time signatures are in this song, but I do know this ... it's a trip, it's got a funky beat, and I can bug out to it. The second track on the Beastie Boys' landmark frankenrecording, Paul's Boutique, "Rump" is so sonically dense, there's still a handful of samples hiding in the underbrush, waiting for archaeologists to flush them out. For a great analysis of this song, head over to Ear Fuzz and read, "Anatomy of a Sample Part 2 - Shake Your Rump," a wicked breakdown of this mind-boggling collage. Fans of The Adios Lounge may remember my own "Anatomy of a Classic" featuring Sam Cooke's song, "Bring It On Home To Me." Well, this Ear Fuzz post was my inspiration. Fans of Paul's Boutique also owe it to themselves to check out the Paul's Boutique Samples and References List and their "Shake Your Rump" entry specifically. While I am prone to occasional overstatement, there is no question in my mind that this is one of the best songs on one of the best albums ever made.
As an added bonus, here's the Beasties/Dust Brothers with the demo version of "Rump," entitled "Full Clout." The fidelity isn't spectacular, but given the song's immense historical value, I'm hoping you'll cut me some slack. And in the event I'm still bloggifying next year, I may celebrate the 20th anniversary of Paul's Boutique with some sort of retrospective. Luckily, I have a little time. Until then, let's rock a house party at the drop of a hat.
Beastie Boys - Full Clout [Shake Your Rump demo]
Friday, November 21, 2008
The Beatles: Happiness Is A Warm Gun
According to John Lennon, the title for Happiness Is a Warm Gun came from the cover of a gun magazine that producer George Martin handed him: "I think he showed me a cover of a magazine that said 'Happiness Is a Warm Gun.' It was a gun magazine. I just thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say. A warm gun means you just shot something."
A complicated song, it took took 15 hours and over 100 takes to complete because of the various different time signatures; beginning in 4/4 time, the song shifts to a 3/4 time for the guitar solo in the "I need a fix... " section. This gives way to 6/8, 3/4, and 4/4 measures in the "Mother Superior... " section before returning to 4/4 for the majority of the doo-wop style ending. During Lennon's spoken-word intro, the song briefly switches into 6/4.
Lennon said the song was "sort of a history of rock and roll," as it features numerous different sections but is less than 3 minutes long. Though not particularly getting along well at the time, the band collaborated as a close unit to work out the complex rhythms and meters, which caused it to be considered one of the few true Beatles songs on the White Album. Considering the cause of Lennon's death, it has to be one of the most ironic tunes of all time.
Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: The Blimp (Mousetrapreplica)
When it comes to tricky beats, the king has to be Captain Beefheart, who feels 4/4 time is "mother's heartbeat music" - the guy absolutely loathes even time signatures.
"I don't believe in time, you know, 4/4 and all that stuff. Frank Zappa believes in time and we could never get it together. He writes all his music and gets sentimental about good old rock 'n' roll, but that's appeasement music." - Captain Beefheart
Based on a newsreel of the Hindenburg airship crash, The Blimp (Mousetrapreplica) comes from the amazing Trout Mask Replica, the Captain's third studio album, which was produced by former schoolmate Frank Zappa. The vocal is performed by Jeff Cotton and recorded over a telephone.
Recorded in 1969, all the music for Trout Mask Replica was written in about 3 days, but it took over 8 months of practice to get it down. During this time, the band lived in a communal house, which one member described as having a "cult-like" atmosphere. Combining Blues, free Jazz and other apparently disparate genres of American music, Trout Mask Replica is regarded as an important work of experimental music and appears at number 58 on the List of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Lick My Decals Off, Baby
Lick My Decals Off, Baby comes from the 1970 album of the same name - it spent 11 weeks in the British Top 50 and surprisingly reached #20.
In the March 1971 edition of Creem, legendary critic, Lester Bangs, wrote:
Gazing across pop music's stale horizons, past all the cynical ineptitude, pseudo-intellectual solemnity, neurotic regression and dismal deadends for great bands, there is one figure who stands above the murk forging an art at once adventurous and human: Don Van Vliet, known to a culture he's making anachronistic as Captain Beefheart.
In Lick My Decals Off, Baby this vision is extended, and even though the sonic textures are sometimes even more complex and angular than on Trout Mask, the lyrics have taken an added universality, many of them stepping back a stride from the kaleidoscopic image-clusters of last year's songs. "Lick My Decals Off, Baby" is just great bawdy music, as sanguinely sexual as a tale out of Boccaccio: "Rather than I wanna hold your hand/I wanna swallow you whole/'n' I wanna lick you everywhere it's pink/'n' everywhere you think/Whole kit 'n' kaboodle 'n' the kitchen sink..."
Captain Beefheart takes some getting used to at first, just like Ornette and Ayler and the Velvets and even the Stooges (and didn't Dylan sound pretty strange the first time we heard him?). But if it does sometimes require some patience and close attention, is also one of the most rewarding musical experiences available today. The fact is that this man's music, probably more than that of anybody else working in rock now, is breaking ground for an awesome superhighway leading us away from the decadent era of Superstars into a future where every man shall have ears to hear music beyond our wildest dreams, music like nobody's heard on earth before. I don't want to get into apocalyptic statements, but I think the time is rapidly approaching when almost all styles but free music, music encompassing everything in our traditions (even harmony and lush lyricism - dig Pharoah Sanders' new stuff) and transcending it, will begin to exhaust themselves. The same old song can keep grinding outa the AM tubes and FM tuners from here to Alhaville, but more people are getting restless to move on all the time. So I'm gonna go not so very far at all out on a limb and say that Captain Beefheart is the most important musician to rise in the Sixties, far more significant and far-reaching than the Beatles, who only made pretty collages with material from the public domain, when you get right down to it; as important, as I said, for all music as Ornette Coleman was for jazz ten years ago and Charlie Parker 15 years before that, as important as Leadbelly was for the blues Cap teethed on. His music is a harbinger of tomorrow, but his messages are universal and warm as the hearth of the America we once dreamed of. That's a combination that's hard to beat.
Pretty awesome review - pretty awesome music.
Led Zeppelin: The Crunge
Every once in a while it is essential to get the Led out, even on a blog like this.
According to Wikipedia this song resulted from a jam session where the band was trying to play James Brown-like funk. The famous line "Where's that confounded bridge" at the end of the song is a reference to James Brown, who often called out to the band, "Take it to the bridge".
The time signature on this song shifts and turns, lurches and bumps. It is class-five funky, but still coherent and interesting to listen to (although quite impossible to dance to). It is also a testament to Bonham and Page's technical brilliance. Here are the time signatures as they are listed at Wikipedia:
1 x 5/8
7 x 9/8 (or 4/8 + 5/8)
1 x 8/8 (or 4/8 + 4/8)
3 x 8/8
1 x 5/8
1 x 4/8
3 x 8/8
1 x 5/8
1 x 4/8
3 x 8/8
1 x 4/8
1 x 2/8
Thursday, November 20, 2008
The Allman Brothers Band: Whipping Post
Unless you have quite literally been sequestered in some radioless juror's motel for the last forty years, you know the Allman Brothers Band, even if you don't know the various guest spots (Duane Allman made Layla what it is), side-projects (see, for example, both Gov't Mule and the Derek Trucks Band) and incarnations (aka the infamous 1978 - 1982 years) which the various members have undergone since death began tugging at their core. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees for their role as "principal architects" of the Southern Rock tradition, these guys may not have cracked the top half of Rolling Stones top 100 acts of all time, but after almost forty years as a touring band and over a dozen albums turned gold, their high recognition factor speaks to their double-A rating as mainstays of classic rock radio, not to mention their roles as partial forefathers to a variety of more modern musical forms, from alt-country to jamband.
But though Southern Rock isn't known for any particularly innovative musical envelope-pushing, the Allman's ability to innovate within the confines of the powerful, typically 4/4 guitar-laden tropes of barroom bluesrock often go without notice. Case in point: familiar anthem Whipping Post, which owes its driving, overpresent pulse to the unusual choice of an 11/4 metric for the intro and verses. When the song swings into a set of pulsing triplets for the chorus, nominally framed around a twelve-beat 4/4, the transformation of odd meter into something familiar brings with it an overwhelming release and relief, making mincemeat of our hearts and souls. Bring a lighter, not a cellphone, for the encore; prepare to scream yourself hoarse, and enjoy.
I should preface this post by saying that I don't play any instruments, can't read music, and know nothing of time signatures or any other technical musical jargon. That's why most of my writing here and at my own site tends to deal more with the story behind the music, the history of the artist, or some personal connection I have to the music itself.
I must apologize then if this song is in 4/4 time. I really don't know if it is or if it isn't. I just know it has what I consider to be a tricky beat... or at least a strange one. At least one member of R.E.M agrees with me.
Peter Buck does not play drums. Not usually anyway. He's the guitar slinger... the axe man. But on this song... the untitled hidden track on 1988's Green... R.E.M.'s usual drummer Bill Berry relinquished the reigns of the drum kit to his friend Buck.
The story goes that Buck was messing around on the drums and somehow came up with the beat for this song. When it came time to record the song for Green, Berry attempted to duplicate Buck's beat, but couldn't get it quite right.
Buck explained the track to music reporter Julie Panebianco thusly. "I don't think you can listen to the record without realizing which song it is that I play drums on. Bill is still amazed. He says it's impossible to play that drum part, not that it's hard, it's just so bad, no one can play it perfectly all the way through. It's one thing to make a mistake like that, but it's another thing to do it on purpose."
So that's it. The story of one of the more unique beats in the R.E.M. discography. As for why the song itself doesn't have a title? I have no idea.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Solex: That's What You Get With People Like That On Cruises Like These
I'll be the first to admit that I'm not adept at formally deciphering the time signatures of songs. Of course, I can tell if something sounds unique, or possesses a strange composition. But to be sure of a specific time signature just isn't my forte. Perhaps I need more training. Knowing this, I thought my approach at choosing a song which utilized them was going to be a challenge.
Ultimately, I went with Solex's "That's What You Get With People Like That On Cruises Like These," from her 1999 album, Pick Up. To be certain that my selection fit within this week's theme, I consulted Boyhowdy, who confirmed that this song uses a 7/8 rhythm. Although he also mentioned that the song overlays a couple more time signatures which adds to the songs overall tensity.
The woman behind Solex is Holland's Elisabeth Esselink. Her brand of music began while working at her own music store where she would sift through the bargain bins and sample bits and pieces from various albums and create her own musical collages. And that's just one of the reasons Solex's music is so wonderfully bizarre. It's as if she chooses some of the most unattractive sounds, but stirs them together to create some truly remarkable tracks, both surreal and exposive. Organized chaos, perhaps?
In part 1 of this post, I discussed the polyrhythmic music of the Yoruba people of west Africa. Here, I will reveal what led me to seek out that music in the first place.
By 1980, I was sold on the music of Talking Heads. Three albums into their career, they had shown me enough that I wanted to know what was going to happen next. And at that point, the band seemingly broke up. Officially, they were on hiatus, with the promise to return, but we’ve all heard that before. So, I was nervous.
The band broke into three parts at that point. I dutifully bought the Tom Tom Club album. I sought out Jerry Harrison’s solo album. And I enjoyed them thoroughly. But nothing prepared me for My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by David Byrne and Brian Eno.
David Byrne/ Brian Eno: Help Me Somebody
Well, not quite nothing. I did read about the making of the album in the New York Times, and in Musician magazine. And, in those sources, I heard the term polyrhthm for the first time. I learned that Byrne and Eno had been listening to African music, and had become inspired by it. I have shared with you some of what they were listening to.
For My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Byrne and Eno created instrumental tracks inspired by the polyrhthms of African music. For vocals, they used found sounds, which in the case of “Help Me Somebody”, was a preacher recorded off the radio.
Talking Heads: The Great Curve
In 1981, I breathed a sigh of relief. Talking Heads were getting back together. Byrne and Eno brought the results of there musical explorations back to the band, and the result was Remain in Light.
To my ears, Remain in Light represents polyrhythmic music taken to its ultimate level. The song I have chosen perfectly illustrates this. King Sunny Ade took the job of some of the drums, and gave it to guitars, keyboards, and slide guitar. “The Great Curve” further spreads the rhythms to the horns, and to three overlapping vocal parts. Amazingly, despite the complexity of this music, Talking Heads did have a charting single off this album with “Once in a Lifetime”. Such was the power of music video and MTV at the time.
So, from something in part 1 of this post that I would imagine was unfamiliar to many readers, we have come to something I would imagine many of you have heard before. I hope you can hear it now with new ears. And thank you all for listening.
My personal journey into the music of Africa began a longer exploration of world music which continues to this day. If anyone else would like to pursue this further, I have provided some resources below to help you on your way.
- By far the best magazine I have found is Songlines. Each issue comes with a sampler cd of new world music releases. Songlines is published in England, and unfortunately, the exchange rates have driven up the price lately, but it’s well worth it if you can afford it.
- Afropop Worldwide is an invaluable online resource for all things pertaining to African music.
- Luaka Bop is the world music label founded by David Byrne after the breakup of Talking Heads.
- The other “pop“ musician who founded his own world music label is Peter Gabriel, with Real World Records.
And finally, a pair of blogs to check out:
- Benn loxox du taccu is Matt Yanchyshyn's
world music blog. It hasn’t been updated since he announced his engagement on Sept. 27, but the older links are still working as of this writing.
- Awesome Tapes from Africa is just what it sounds like. The sound quality varies, and not all of the music is great, but this music is not available otherwise, and the good stuff makes it worth it.
So that’s it for now. Enjoy your journey!
Monday, November 17, 2008
King Crimson: Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Part II
When I'd heard this week's theme was tricky beats, the first song that came to mind was King Crimson's Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Part II. Try and count the many different time signature shifts; I come up with 11/8, 10/8, 7/8, 5/8, 5/4 - even 4/4 gets the once over.
Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Part II is a blueprint for later King Crimson works - Fracture, Red, Starless and Bible Black, among others. You don't have to understand music theory to hear the beauty of guitarist/composer Robert Fripp's organized chaos at work. It's a delicate balance of tension and release in this tricky instrumental voyage - don't try and follow it yourself, just jump aboard and let the music take you there.
Yoruba musicians with talking drums
I’ve been waiting a long time for the right theme, so I could share some world music with everyone. Now, the time has come.
In western music, notes are layered with other notes to form harmony. Over time, we have developed counter melodies and other levels of complexity in our harmony techniques. In Western Africa, the native music features simple melodies and almost no harmony at all. But the rhythm is quite another matter.
Where we layer notes and melodic lines, the musicians of western Africa layer rhythms. Many drums and rhythm instruments are needed, and sometimes each one plays in a different time signature, all at the same time. It sounds like it should be chaotic, but, once you get used to hearing it, the results are amazing. This is polyrhythm. Some of the finest practitioners of polyrhythmic music in Africa are the Yoruba people of Nigeria and nearby countries.
Babatunde Olatunji: Jin-Go-Lo-Bah
In the 1950s, Harry Belefonte traveled all over the world, and brought his musical discoveries to American audiences. One of these was Babatunde Olatunji. Olatunji brought the sounds of traditional Yoruban drumming to the United States, and released a series of albums here. “Jin-Go-Lo-Bah” comes from the first of these American releases, Drums of Passion Many jazz musicians have cited Olatunji’s music as an inspiration.
King Sunny Ade: Ja Funmi
Fast forward thirty years, and music has changed. On American radio, “Heartbreak Hotel” has been replaced by “Rapture”. In Nigeria, there have also been changes. Western popular music has reached all over the world, and native musicians have incorporated these sounds into there work. And so, the traditional Yoruban music has evolved.
This evolution took two main forms. The leading figure in the afro-beat style was Fela Kuti. And the leading figure in juju music was and is King Sunny Ade. Of the two styles, juju music is the one that best preserves the polyrhythmic features of the traditional material. In juju, some of the drums from a traditional ensemble are replaced with electric guitar, synthesizer, even slide guitar. The resulting music has a more delicate sound, but is just as rhythmically complex.
I hope everyone enjoyed part 1 of my look at polyrhythm. In part 2 later this week, we’ll see what happened when polyrhythm came to America.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Radiohead: Everything In It's Right Place
I don't know much about time signatures, but I know that this ain't 4/4, and I know I can't dance to it. I would actually like to hear from someone who knows exactly how one would classify the time signature of this song. I hear four beats followed by six (or maybe by two groups of three). So, I'm guessing it's 10/4? Or is it just 5/4, but divided up in an odd way or with an unusual emphasis?
I honestly don't have a clue. If you know, please pass on your wisdom. I'd like to learn more about how to identify such things.
Peter Gabriel: Solsbury Hill
I spent some time with this song a number of years back, nominally in order to arrange it for an a capella group I had formed from a few fellow fellows and mid-level program coordinators at the Boston Museum of Science. If I remember correctly, we actually performed it at the museum staff holiday party that year, complete with awkward choreography and lab coat uniforms, for a cumulative total of seven quadrillion geek points.
The anecdotal research on Gabriel's first solo hit often claims it's a commentary on his experience leaving long-standing prog rock forefathers Genesis; if so, it isn't a subtle one. The lyrics are clunky and graceless upon close examination, especially towards the middle of the song -- "liberty she pirouette" and "I will show another me" are the classic examples, and you can hear some pretty silly rhymes in there, too -- but Gabriel deserves the benefit of the doubt: perhaps the awkwardness is deliberate, a companion to the seven beats per measure time signature, taken together a paired statement on the band tensions alluded to in the lyrics, and the stumblestep hesitancy of leaving the group that made you famous.
That said, Solsbury Hill is one of the most natural uses of the 7/4 time signature that I've experienced. Where Manic Depression lurches through its relatively common trimeter, calling attention to itself in spades, the arrangement of beat stresses here run in pairs (4, 2, 4, 4), rather than taking the much more typical approach of wobbling back and forth between measures of four and three; the pair of 4/4 measures at the end of each chorus hardly stand out against such an even keel. The result is a song which seems perfectly danceable in the radio background, and only confronts the listener as a song of unusual metrics in cases of overanalysis.
It's so natural, in fact, that Erasure's 2003 attempt to turn the song into flat post-disco-tronic 4/4 comes off as a drag, more than slightly less natural than the original. Or maybe that's just the eighties synthbeat. Check it out:
Erasure: Solsbury Hill
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Manic Depression
Manic Depression comes from The Jimi Hendrix Experience's debut album, Are You Experienced. It's an apropos choice for this week's theme, given that the man behind the tricky beat, drummer Mitch Mitchell, passed away earlier this week.
Manic Depression finds Mitchell in explosive form, the 12/8 drum gallop showcases the strong Elvin Jones influence on Mitch's style, a perfect foil to Jimi's psychotic psychedelic fret work. I'm pretty sure it's easier to dance to architecture than to this tune - I've a couple more fine examples of Mitchell's playing with The Jimi Hendrix Experience over in comments at my latest snuhthing/anything post: connive to thrive friday five.
Dave Brubeck: Unsquare Dance
One of my earliest memories is being with my father, listening to Harry Belafonte’s Matilda, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and anything by Johnny Cash (I still know all the words to his songs) – I was born in 1954 and we had a hi-fi for the early years of my life. I will never forget the momentous occasion when my dad brought home a *stereo*… took great delight in setting it up… had me sit down on the couch, at the apex where the speakers joined to make “the sweet spot”... and played Dave Brubeck’s Take Five (on Time Out) – magic!
A song on Time Further Out was also one of Dad’s favorites – as Brubeck points out in his liner notes:
Unsquare Dance, in 7/4 time, is a challenge to the foot-tappers, finger-snappers and hand-clappers. Deceitfully simple, it refuses to be squared. And the laugh you hear at the end is Joe Morello’s guffaw of surprise and relief that we had managed to get through the difficult last chorus.
Every time Dad played the album, which was frequently, he encouraged me to attempt to clap along... quite fun and challenging for a seven-year-old child – even though the tune was only two minutes, I never could keep the rhythm all the way through… but he always did...
[ Just as I was getting ready to post this, I saw the picture of Morello (Brubeck's drummer) on the Star Maker Machine home page sidebar for this week’s theme – wah! Here I thought I was being unique and clever – well, I’m sending it on anyway, just in case someone out there hasn’t heard (or heard of) it… ]